While the official Thai language is widely spoken throughout Thailand, many Thais also speak and understand English, though more so in Bangkok and the major tourist areas. As visitors to Thailand also include many Europeans and other Asians, Thai people's language skills often also include these other languages to varying degrees. The Thai language itself is challenging to master, but Thai people are happy to help foreigners learn a few words to help them get around. However, English is typically the common currency for cross-cultural conversation as Thailand hosts visitors from around the world.
With so many visitors, the Thailand communications system has many features that make it very accessible to foreigners. In regards to telephone use, it is possible to get a Thai SIM card at most international airports and both rental mobile phones and SIM cards are readily available in destinations including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. Workers in post offices generally speak some English, and there are internet cafes throughout Thailand that feature Skype headsets specifically to cater to visitors wishing to communicate with friends and family back home. The Thailand communications system is both modern and convenient for visitors to use.
While the Thai language is the official language of Thailand, one could say English is its unofficial second language. As tourist and business visitors from around the world have traveled to Thailand, English naturally has become the common linguistic “currency” even while many of those visitors learned how to speak Thai. Consequently, population centers that host many foreigners, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the islands have many people who can speak both Thai and English quite well.
That said, visitors may experience difficulty picking up the Thai language as it is considerably different from many foreign languages. The Thai language features five tones: high, mid, low, rising, and falling, each of which changes the meaning of particular ‘words’. Visitors unfamiliar with tonal languages often have difficulty pronouncing even the most basic terms when learning to speak Thai, but with some practice visitors find that Thai people enjoy helping them with their pronunciation of the Thai language.
Written Thai is based on an alphabet adopted from the Khmers of Cambodia and is said to have become standardized during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng during the Sukhothai period. The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants, 18 vowels, and 4 diphthong (tonal) notations. Learning to read Thai can be more complicated than learning to speak it as the pronunciation of written words does not follow a straightforward progression of letters and written Thai does not place spaces in between words. Fortunately, road signs are written in both Thai and English, and many tourist areas provide maps, menus, and other literature in both Thai and various other foreign languages.
One problem that does occur for foreigners trying to pronounce Thai words correctly is caused by the transliteration of Thai words into Romanized characters. An obvious example would be the island of Phuket, pronounced “poo-ket” rather than “foo-ket” as it would be pronounced in English. Furthermore, there is no official standard for the transliteration of words and thus many Thai words are spelled differently on different maps or street signs (i.e. Even the BTS Skytrain features both Chitlom and Chidlom stations).
In addition, while most Thai’s speak and understand the central Thai dialect, there are various regional dialects, including those of Southern Thailand and Northeastern Thailand, the latter of which is essentially just the Lao language (as most of the population is of Lao descent). In northern Thailand, which had been the independent kingdoms of Lan Na and Chiang Mai from 1259-1939, a distinctive form of Thai is still spoken by the local inhabitants, all of whom can also speak central Thai. All variants of Thai use the same alphabet.
Thailand Communications Network
The Thailand Communications network is both easy and convenient for foreigners to utilize. Thailand features numerous public telephones, mobile phones are easy for visitors to procure, internet cafes and wireless internet services are widespread, and there is a post office in every major town in the Kingdom. From telephones to the internet, the Thailand communications network allows visitors to stay in touch with comfort and ease.
Telephone (Thailand Phones)
The telephone system in Thailand is both modern and widespread, with reliable pay phones found throughout the kingdom and Thailand cell phone reception covering all but the most remote Thai islands. Furthermore, purchasing a second-hand Thai phone and a SIM card is both cheap and easy, and internet cafes in most urban areas and all tourist areas have Skype installed on their public computers.
If you are using a Thai phone to call home or call Thailand from overseas, both are quite easy. Thailand’s international country code for calling Thailand from overseas is +66, and the code for placing a call to another country from a Thai phone is 001 followed by the country code of the nation you are dialing, (though other long distances providers allow you to dial 007, 008, or 009 rather than 001, but at different, typically higher rates). International operator assistance is available by dialing 110.
When calling Thailand from overseas or calling a Thai phone from within Thailand there is a slight difference. Phone numbers within Thailand begin with an area/city code or a cell phone prefix that is not always used when calling from overseas; For example, the city code for Bangkok is (0)2, the city code for Chiang Mai is (0)53, and the prefix for cell phones is (0)8. When dialing from a Thai phone, one includes the 0, while those calling Thailand from overseas should not include the 0. Consequently, an overseas call to Bangkok would be +66-2…, whereas a call from within Thailand would begin 02….
Emergency numbers are often three or four digit numbers, including Tourist Police, which is 1155.
Coin operated pay phones are available throughout the country and cost around 1 baht per minute for local calls. Card phones, which operate with either prepaid phone cards or, less frequently, credit cards are also widely available, particularly in large urban and tourist areas; Card phones have variable rates, but can cost up to 18 baht (.50 USD) per minute. Prepaid phone cards, which are generally available in 300 baht denominations (just under 10 USD), are available at convenience stores such as 7-11 and phones accepting these cards are painted yellow and are usually not far from the local 7-11 store.Public telephones that charge by the minute for local and overseas calls are also available at general post offices throughout the kingdom.
Thai Cell Phones
The Thailand cell phone coverage is widespread, with reception available in all areas except at the most remote islands and isolated mountainous regions. Many overseas cell phones will work in Thailand, provided they are GSM compatible, as Thailand features both GSM 900 and 1800 networks. While it may be convenient to have friends and family call Thailand to reach you on your “home” cell phone number, receiving and sending calls is likely to be quite expensive. If your cell phone has a slot to insert a SIM card, such cards are available for a few dollars, either at the airport or in IT markets throughout the country. These SIM cards are funded by prepaid phone cards that are available at nearly all convenience stores in the country. If your phone doesn’t have a slot for a SIM card, a Thailand cell phone can be picked up at the airport for a reasonable rate or an inexpensive new or second hand cell phone can be easily obtained at locations such as MBK shopping mall in Bangkok.